Dog Walker by Heath Kizzier by Heath Kizzier - Read Online

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Dog Walker - Heath Kizzier

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places.

PROLOGUE

A cold March darkness descended over the Colorado mountains. Violent winds banked a cauldron of clouds across the sky and slammed sheets of rain into the trees as if intentionally trying to destroy them.

The deluge stung Scott Garrison’s skin as he crept through the forest and eyed the armed soldiers patrolling the compound. He had tried to purge his self-doubts, but the overwhelming odds against him had formed an indestructible barrier of dread.

There he is! Garrison gasped when he saw his target round the corner of the building. He instantly knew he was in trouble. The construction foreman passing in front of him was gigantic. Standing six feet, six inches and wearing a Patagonia rain suit, the giant looked like a granite mountain carved into human form. Garrison tried to breathe, force his muscles to move. He had to move! Another twenty seconds and the foreman would circle into the halogen lights of the compound. He could not let that happen.

Garrison edged out of the shadows and drew closer.

Now!

He lunged forward covering fifteen yards in four steps. He rammed the larger man to unbalance him and seized a sleeper-hold around his twenty-inch neck.

The surprise attack didn’t work. The foreman wielded his two hundred and fifty pounds like a well-honed weapon. He lurched forward pulling Garrison off his feet, then like a Greco-Roman wrestler, threw his weight back into the hold. Both men tumbled backward.

In mid air, there was no time to parry the move. Garrison leaned into the fall, the action barely saving his ribs from being crushed by the weight of the giant. Instead, his shoulder led the fall into the mud. It went instantly numb with fiery pain. The hulk slammed his head backwards catching Garrison in the face. A gash erupted across his cheek, a spray of blood flooding into his eyes. The giant’s second blow shattered his nose, the snapping sounds of cartilage exploded like gunfire inside Garrison’s head.

Desperation triggered a surge of adrenaline. He ratcheted the sleeper hold and locked it by throwing his weight forward.

The foreman writhed, lashing out with his legs. The bone-splintering kicks hammered into Garrison’s shins. Hold on!

The foreman found his voice and yelled out.

No! Garrison dug his fingers into the man’s larynx, choking off the words. The giant jerked spasmodically. Then again. He’s weakening. Hold on!

Twenty seconds later, the giant fell limp—the reduced flow of blood to his brain rendering him unconscious. Garrison rolled away and lay gasping for breath. Rain washed the blood from face; it both soothed and stung the gash. He ran his fingers along the bridge of his nose. It was definitely broken, but it would have to be forgotten.

He struggled to his feet and looked down. Lying sprawled before him was two hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight—weight that he would have to move. He’d made a mistake, he thought. If the foreman woke up, he’d never subdue him a second time.

Garrison readied himself and gripped the collar of the foreman’s raincoat. Jerking backwards three feet at a time, he dragged the unconscious man into the trees.

The muscles in Garrison’s legs and biceps seized after traversing seventy yards. He could go no further. He dropped the limp body facing a pine tree, and using strips of material cut from the lining of the foreman’s coat, tied the bulky arms and legs around the trunk. He shoved material into the man’s mouth, tied it in place, and rechecked the knots. Secure.

Now it was time to kill the lights.

He sprinted into the compound toward the first of the three generators.

He removed the caps of the diesel and oil reservoirs and scooped handfuls of mud into the cavities, adding several pebbles for extra assurance.

Replacing the caps, he raced for the second generator a hundred yards to the east. He was running out of time!

He ducked under a branch and stopped abruptly. Ten feet away, a guard, looking like an angry sea lion in his sleek raincoat, stood towering over the generator, his rifle held in position as he scanned the shadows. He was smoking a cigarette, and made no move to help the electrician who was dragging a heavy roll of cable into position.

Garrison swore under his breath. His thoughts raced. But he knew there was only one option. He inched his way to the ground and felt for an improvised weapon. He could wait sixty seconds. After that he had no choice, he would have to attack.

The electrician patched the cable into the generator and picked up the coil. He shot an irritated look at the soldier who made no move to help. You want to give me a light here?

The soldier grumbled, tossed his cigarette aside, and switched on a flashlight. He went ahead, taking the lead into the compound. The electrician followed, letting the coil unravel three feet at a time.

Thank God! The instant the men vanished into the shadows, Garrison leapt to the generator and shoved handfuls of mud into the reservoirs.

Five minutes later, he stood at the last of the power-makers, the machine that gave life to the compound’s exterior lights. Garrison opened the oil cap and set it aside. But he had to wait. Timing had to be perfect!

In the distance, he could hear the other two generators, pulses of power surging through the units, struggling to keep them operating despite the alien material that had invaded them. At last, one machine pulsated a final time and heaved a piston through the metal wall.

A chorus of shouts rattled through the compound. Soldiers rushed from their posts to investigate. Two minutes later, the second generator clanged to its mechanical death.

Garrison shoved a handful of pebbles into the openings of the last generator, and pulled the twelve connecting cables from their receptacles. The compound crashed into instant blackness as every field lamp went dark. Soldiers clicked on flashlights, but the beams created only useless spits of light.

Nothing drains the courage from a man more than confusion combined with darkness, Soaring High Eagle had said. Garrison’s mentor had taught him that an untrained man denied even one of his senses could be rendered impotent in an emergency.

Garrison rushed past the soldiers toward the southern point of the compound. He approached a green-painted backhoe tractor and pulled himself into the cab. The key was in the ignition, but he didn’t touch it. Not yet.

The sleek helicopter crept over the lip of the arena and hovered ten feet above the landing pad. Its rotors whipped the rain around it in a cacophonous frenzy. The pilots peered out their windows, uncertain about the darkened situation beneath them.

Do it. Do it. Do it! Garrison roared silently, trying to force his thoughts through the metal hull. As if obeying his command, the aircraft began to descend.

Garrison plunged his foot against the clutch pedal and wrenched the key. On the fourth crank the tractor roared to life. He pulled the closest knobbed lever, and in front of him the hinged dirt-scooping bucket smashed into the ground. The other way, damnit! He shoved the lever forward and hydraulic juices flooded the mechanical arteries. The bucket jerked upward until it was twenty feet above ground. Garrison jammed the tractor into gear and released the clutch. The machine lurched forward.

Thirty yards ahead, the aircraft was settling onto the helipad. Interior lights revealed the concerned pilots. One of them flipped a switch on the dash and powerful spotlights streaked from a recess in the hull, illuminating the surrounding forest. At that instant, the pilot saw the tractor barreling toward him.

Twenty yards.

Garrison switched gears and pressed the accelerator to the floor. He stood out of the seat trying to time his escape. Directly over the hood, he saw too late, the cavernous hole—remnants of an uprooted tree. The violent jolt ripped the steering wheel from his hands and tossed him into the controls.

Ten yards!

The tractor rocked back to four wheels and swerved wildly to the right. Garrison steadied himself and corrected the course. The front of the machine bucked over another rut, and when the rear tires hit it, Garrison jumped. The jarring backlash catapulted him into the air. He crumbled to the ground, knocking the breath from his lungs. He pulled his legs to his chest and covered his head. There was nothing else he could do.

The extended arm of the tractor took the violent impact of the helicopter blade. The explosion of metal against metal was deafening. A sheared piece of rotor slammed into the ground near Garrison’s feet and ricocheted over him, slicing through a pocket of aspen trees. He looked forward in horror as the back end of the helicopter whipped around in an inevitable revolution. He threw his body to the left. Two inches spared his life. The spinning tail blades careened past him and pounded broadside into the tractor. The aircraft spotlights exploded in a shower of sparks. The impact flung both machines into the darkness as if roughly treated children’s toys. Seconds later, it was silent.

All except the terrified screams of the pilots inside.

CHAPTER 1

Spring, Now

Los Angeles, California

The law offices of Brand and Gooding were slowing at 4:30 in the afternoon, the usual for a Friday. Scott Garrison leaned forward in his chair and glanced at the hands of the crystal-rimmed clock for the third time in as many minutes. The slow crawl was maddening.

He peered across the desk at the three inch-thick files—the remnants of his current caseload that he was transferring to a colleague to handle during his absence. That colleague, Tom Marshall, sat across from him incessantly reviewing the details of the files. Tom was an odd little man, thought Garrison. Short in stature, parrot-like features, and severely receding hairline—all of which he attempted to conceal by forever being the funniest and smartest man in the room. Any room. Any topic. Garrison had to resist the urge to tell Tom to speed it up. He appreciated Tom’s zeal, but wasn’t it obvious the briefs were polished and complete?

Garrison sipped from his coffee mug and found only thick, tepid remains. Around him was the comfortable, glassed-in space of the twenty-eighth-floor corner office, which management had bestowed upon him along with the status of partner. But the suite seemed much smaller than its actual twenty-five by thirty foot dimensions. Even the welcoming earth tones that cloaked the walls and shelves would not ease his thwarted anticipation.

Claustrophobia circled invisibly around him. He needed to go! A curt sigh escaped his lungs, and he absently fingered the framed photograph that occupied the corner of his desk. The photo was of a mountain meadow, snowcapped peaks looming above as if protective parents. Seeing the image soothed Garrison’s mood. He’d worked long and hard for his position in the firm, but it wasn’t where he dreamed of being. Not even close. Starting tonight, however, that would all change.

When are you going to grow out of this Boy Scout phase of yours, Garrison?

Garrison looked up and found Tom watching him. He shrugged. I can’t stop until I win the Scout Master’s Pinewood Derby.

Yeah, I remember that, Tom said, the corners of his mouth crinkling into a devilish smirk. Got disqualified for hiding buckshot in the wheels.

Practicing your lawyer’s skills at such an early age, Tom? Quite ambitious of you.

What can I say, I was trying to impress Sally Winters. She’d made it very clear she wouldn’t date a loser.

She should have talked to me. I would have saved her the time.

Hey, Garrison, Tom said, squaring his shoulders defensively. I was extremely cool back then. Crop top hairdo, blue Keds tennis shoes, and a personally made pinto bean necklace. I was a big time lady-killer until I hit puberty.

Garrison closed the latches of his briefcase with a loud snap.

Am I being excused? Tom said with a raised brow.

I was that obvious?

You might as well have slapped me with a broom like my Grandmother did when she wanted us out of the kitchen.

Garrison smiled impishly and raised his palms showing empty hands. Sorry, no broom. He walked around the desk carrying his briefcase. My sabbatical officially started a half hour ago, he explained. I’d like to spend some time with my family before I head out of town.

Tom took the cue and began gathering up the files. He gestured to the five-by-six foot world map framed and mounted on the wall behind Garrison’s desk; dozens of tiny red pins dotted the surface. So where’s it going to be this year? The Alps? The Rockies? Or I hear there’s some good ‘trekking’ in Nepal.

Garrison stood at the threshold holding open the door. I’m heading to Colorado to find Big Foot. I hear he’s a hell of a cook.

Well, don’t forget your fine china. Wouldn’t want to piss him off.

Noted, counselor. Garrison tried hard not to roll his eyes. Usually he was one of the few people in the firm who could endure Tom’s endless banter. But not today.

Together they moved down the corridor, Garrison stopping at the bank of elevators. See you in twenty-eight days, he said extending a hand. Don’t have too much fun without me.

They shook and Tom continued down the corridor to his office. You do always miss the office Saint Patty’s Day Beer Brawl, he called over his shoulder. But don’t worry. This year I’ll take pictures.

The dense Friday afternoon traffic, which usually didn’t bother him, ground at Garrison’s nerves. His mind, most often filled with case strategies billed at two hundred and fifty dollars an hour, was today only on his annual ‘Soul Find.’

From two lanes over a beat up, early model V.W. Bug, complete with a surfboard roped to the roof, swerved recklessly into Garrison’s lane. He threw all of his one hundred and eighty pounds into the brakes of the Explorer and narrowly escaped a collision. The teenage dare devil, who apparently dreamed of becoming the next Evil Kenivel, flicked an obscene gesture out the window.

Garrison hurled his own obscenity, but winced the instant the words left his lips. He superstitiously tapped the roof of the Explorer and withdrew the insult, hoping the Powers That Be hadn’t heard him. Garrison felt that losing patience with daily nuisances would surely mark him as yet another victim of the almighty, self-centered city. And he refused to accept that fate.

Focus Scott, he said aloud. And his thoughts immediately soothed. He grinned foolishly in the rearview mirror. I love that trick.

Forty-five minutes later and finally off the 101 Freeway, Garrison pulled up the steep driveway and parked in front of his comfortable Topanga Canyon home. He gathered his things off the passenger seat and marveled at how the winter rains had produced a sea of green throughout the area—pleased how the trees had erased all evidence of the neighbor’s house sixty yards to the west.

Inside, there was little evidence of his impending twenty-eight day trip. His duffel bag sat by the door, along with a one-and-a-half gallon travel cooler filled with fresh water.

He moved into the large open-spaced kitchen and found his wife and two sandy-haired, grade school aged boys playing Sorry at the table. He kissed Alison and joined the game. It had become their custom to do nothing for at least a half-hour after arriving home; no work, chores, or cooking until they could all wind down together. It helped the moods of all involved.

The boys, however, fidgeted with anticipation. They knew that every year on the night of their father’s trip the family went to their favorite restaurant. There they could order anything they pleased—including double hot-fudge sundaes.

Garrison showered, and dressed in a pair of comfortable bluejeans and a denim button-up, then covered the shirt with a camel hair sports jacket. When he entered the living room, he found Bret and Zack standing nose to nose, voices at high pitch.

You can’t have only a caesar salad for dinner, stupid, that’s a before dinner thing. So that means the best dinner is lobster.

Garrison looked at Alison who shrugged. He couldn’t help wondering where his eight-year-old son had acquired such need for correct behavior. Perhaps it was a stage, he thought, but Bret always became indignant when someone in the family threatened to challenge the norm. What were they teaching in school?

The younger Zack returned volley. Don’t call me stupid. And I can have salad for dinner if I want!

No you can’t, it’s against the rules. Tell him, dad, Bret demanded.

Garrison paused thoughtfully. Well, I’d say that if Zack wants a caesar for dinner, that’s okay with me. But remember, you can have anything you want. I’d hate for you to miss out on liver and onions with a side order of squash.

Zack and Bret erupted into a chorus of pretend gags, argument instantly forgotten.

Alison smirked and slapped Garrison on the backside. Show off.

Who me? He turned innocently and pulled her into his arms. You just have to know what gets ‘em going. They lingered in the embrace just long enough for Bret to cover his eyes and say, gross!

Garrison stood at the edge of the upper bunkbed and pulled the covers around Bret’s shoulders. The boy wiggled, locating the perfect spot in the pillow. Are you sure I can’t go with you, Dad?

Not on this one, Garrison apologized. You have school. But you’re doing a great job with the things I’ve been teaching you, so keep working on them. This summer we’ll go up to the Big Bear Mountains and test them out.

What about me, Dad? Zack asked worriedly from the lower bunk. Can I go too?

Garrison bent and scuffed the younger boy’s hair, I wouldn’t dream of leaving you behind, pal.

The Batman-pajamaed boy looked at Alison, Are you gonna come with us mom? You’d like it. Lots of pretty birds to look at. And they’re different than the ones hanging out on your bird feeders.

Sounds tempting, Zack, but we’ll see.

Back to his dad, he asked, When are you gonna be home?

Twenty-eight days.

Zack scrunched his eyes. That’s too long to be alone. Won’t you be scared of the bears?

Nah, I keep telling you, bears don’t like humans. They think we’re bad news.

Yeah right, at least until they get hungry. Then all of a sudden you’re gonna be a bear’s breakfast.

Garrison loved to watch and listen to his little boy’s singsong voice and simple expressions. He was so young, yet his logic was undeniably wise. I promise to stay away from the bears.

Okay, Zack said, barely appeased.

I love you guys. I’ll see you in a few weeks. Be good to your mom, and give her an extra big hug every night. Promise?

The boys nodded.

Garrison flipped the light switch and spoke in a deep, mocked Indian voice. Sleep well, my Braves. Protect the village until your fearless leader returns from his great quest.

Zack giggled, Bret rolled his eyes. Goodnight Dad.

They backed into the hallway and Alison shut the door. She turned to Garrison. How about a cup of coffee before you go?

Garrison nodded and followed her into the kitchen.

An awkward silence hung over the room while Alison poured her favorite French Roast. She placed two mugs on the butcher block counter between them. It was nice of Richard to set this up for you. I’ve never seen a man so excited for someone else’s good time.

He’s been great, Garrison agreed, taking a sip of the coffee. I’ve never had so much information about an area. He just kept e-mailing volumes of material. Everyday I’d walk into the office and there’d be a new stack of facts and stories, legends and folklore. Garrison smiled. He just became computer literate. You know how that consumes a person.

What are you talking about, Alison teased, leaning against the counter. You’ve been working with computers as long as I’ve known you, and you’re still on that thing night and day. Also, you can’t tell me you didn’t read every word he sent?

Garrison shrugged I’d hate for all his work to go unused. Besides, I filed the whole thing away. Someday when the boys have to do a school research paper, they can whip it out and hand their teacher a guaranteed A.

Sounds like cheating to me.

Let’s call it preparation.

Garrison moved to the freezer and began rummaging through the packages of rock-hard meats.

Alison sipped her coffee and watched him. She knew he was searching for the last pint of ice cream he had wisely hidden from the boys. She noticed the years were making their marks near his deep-set gray-blue eyes, and the laugh lines were more pronounced than they used to be. But it gave his face a quality of character. He’d once been too handsome, she thought. She remembered when they first met, and how their friendship had quickly swelled into a passionate love affair. They were inseparable. For years, Scott allowed his rugged wilderness journeys to become white-sanded Mexican resort vacations, complete with room service. But it had been clear to her that something was missing from his life. And she knew what it was. He needed nature, solitude.

While planning their third annual vacation, she had suggested that Scott spend the two weeks camping in the Sequoia Mountains. He was elated with the idea and begged her to join him. But she had declined. She’d heard of his adventures in the wilderness and had no desire to ‘live off the land.’ Certainly not during her one break all year. Her fantasy vacation would never involve bathing in a creek or scrubbing fire burned pots.

From that day forward, they took separate vacations: she to luxury and pampering; he to rugged adventure and isolation. And although they missed each other, they realized there were also benefits gained by the separation. They had different experiences to share; it helped them see through the day to day annoyances that living together breeds; and most importantly, it kept them both happy.

But in truth, it no longer made Alison happy. It had seemed very grown up at first, very sophisticated, but now the novelty had worn off. She wanted them to be together as a family. She tried hard to hide her hurt feelings, tried to understand his need to leave, but it never made sense. In her view, they lived in a nice, quiet neighborhood, in a beautiful home; everything they needed was here. So, why did he need to escape? Was he running from her, running from his family responsibilities? No, she did not understand.

She often wondered why fate would bring two completely different types of people together. She loved Scott desperately—ten years had not shaken her feelings, yet constantly they were forced to meet in the middle. Compromise is a good thing, she understood, just harder than she’d imagined.

She found Scott’s eyes again when he emerged from the freezer, triumphantly grasping the ice cream carton. Those amazing blue eyes. At forty-two, the picture he presented to the world was that of a well-groomed lawyer, comfortable with his upper middle-class lifestyle. But that was so different from the truth of reality. His upcoming trip was proof of that. A month alone in the wilderness with no outside contact; no tools, no weapons. The trip was insanity! How easy it would be to break a leg-and be lost to the world. Forever! What would she do if she lost him? The mere thought made her shudder.

Are you sure you won’t take the satellite phone this year? she asked. They make them so small, you won’t even notice it.

Garrison brought Alison into a hug and stroked her blonde hair. Thank you for worrying about me, Ally. I do appreciate it—it makes me know I’m loved. He pulled a spoon from the drawer beside her, dug it into the ice cream, and fed her the first bite. Listen, I promise you, everything is going to be fine, like it has every year. And I’ll be home before you know it.

Last year you came home with eight God-awful homemade stitches in your arm. To make her point she traced the ugly three-inch scar with her fingers. I know you’re good at this survival thing, but what if something serious happened to you? How would I ever find you?

Garrison raised his hands helplessly. I know it’s selfish, Ally. But I can’t. A phone, or anything like it, would change the entire experience. The beginnings of a smile played across his lips. Just think of this as preparation for when the kids leave home. We’ll have the same doubts. How can we protect them? How will they survive? He drew a strand of hair from her cheek and cradled it behind her ear. But they will survive, and so will I.

Alison gazed into his eyes listening to unsaid words pass between them. His gentle face spoke of love, respect, caring. She could only nod. And allow him his adventure, his passion. Please be careful, Scott.

He kissed her softly on the lips. I’ll miss you.

You better, she said trying to smile.

They passed through the entry hall, collected his gear, and stepped into the March night. Garrison threw the bag into the back of the Explorer and set the cooler on the passenger seat. He turned back and held her eyes. I love you.

She leaned into his chest. You too, honey. And of course you know...

Yes, he nodded, cutting her off with a grin. I know the rules. No broken bones, no homemade stitches, and no dents in the truck.

Especially no dents. She reached up and kissed him, lingering, sensual. When they broke, she whispered, Think about me.

He brushed her lips with his. After a kiss like that? Impossible not to.

Garrison settled into the driver’s seat and started the engine. As he set the vehicle into reverse, they touched fingers through the open driver’s side window. Garrison eased his foot off the brake, and with a gentle wave, steered the Explorer down the drive.

CHAPTER 2

The city lights of Los Angeles reflected in the rearview mirror as Garrison accelerated along Interstate 10, then connected with Interstate 15 going north. Around him was the second wave of travelers headed to Las Vegas. These unfortunate souls had had to work late, and now drove too fast and too reckless in an attempt to salvage every possible moment of Vegas-style gluttony.

Garrison stayed to the right and allowed them to pass. He switched on a news radio program, and for an hour vaguely listened to the chaos, injury, and death that consumed every corner of big-city life.

Finally, he merged onto Interstate 40 and abandoned the Las Vegas bound travelers. The highway leading east was clear and unencumbered by vehicles except for sporadic eighteen-wheel supply trucks. Garrison felt a wave of stress dissipate from his frame. From inside the glove compartment he withdrew a cartridge containing six CDs and inserted it into the dash. Celtic harmonies floated from the speakers evoking images of swirling mists and verdant landscapes. He liked the haunting music because it calmed his nerves and allowed his mind to wander freely.

This was a vital process for Garrison. Over the past year, hundreds, thousands of thoughts had been stifled, suppressed somewhere deep in his subconscious mind—the necessary mandate of time management in a hectic world. But now he needed to allow those thoughts full expression. Only then could he purge them, cleansing his mind as though a wholesale spring-cleaning. It was the reason he chose to drive to Colorado instead of fly. The thirteen hours of mental excretion were essential. Only then could his Soul Find truly begin.

A legion of thoughts did battle to achieve dominance in Garrison’s brain. The trivial and inconsequential were quickly eliminated; then the more weighty issues and ideas took center stage. These fused into memories, and soon Garrison was musing on how his current trip had come to be.

Exactly six months before his annual March departure, Garrison would begin planning his trip. First choosing a general area, then, coupled with Internet research, Travel Services information, and a thousand questions to anyone with local knowledge, he would narrow it down.

This year, the original plan had been to explore an eastern section of the Canadian Rockies. However, two weeks after his planning began, he attended an art exhibition on La Cienega Boulevard and the event changed his Soul Find agenda.

The pompous, often artificial world of the Arts society never appealed to Garrison, especially in L.A. The throngs of actors, producers, and other show-business types made spectacles of themselves as if paid to make a scene. It did not seem fair that the art took a back seat. But, because Alison was a popular staff-writer of the Daily News Arts and Entertainment section, she had to make an appearance at the larger openings in town. Garrison often joined her and ran what they called interference. He